One commentator once said, 'T.H. White has a genius for recreating the physical conditions of the past; the child who reads him will learn far more than all the historians and archaeologists could tell of what England was like in the Middle Ages.' This tale, 'The Once and Future King', is a classic of English literature, crossing the ages to be a tale both of modern times in the language and treatment of characters as well as the misty, mystical past with its subject matter.
Like many classics, this book inspired both great love and great irritation. It is a classic retelling of the Arthurian legends - White does not add to the legends with his own additions, but rather sticks closely to manuscripts and stories that have gone before, most notably Thomas Mallory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur', also considered a classic. The book is divided into four major sections: 'The Sword in the Stone', 'The Queen of Air and Darkness', 'The Ill-Made Knight', and 'The Candle in the Wind'. The overall tone of Arthur's legend goes from hopefulness to tragedy, as even the final conflicts become unresolved, hence the idea that Arthur will come again.
The title of this work comes from the supposed inscription on Arthur's tomb: HIC IACET ARTORIVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS. The sweep goes from Arthur's childhood to the final battle with his son Mordred. Like many works, this is both a piece of entertainment as well as a political commentary (think 'The Wizard of Oz' here) - Mordred's thrashers are Nazi stormtroopers, for example. This book was the product of the time just before World War II. Merlin's preaching of just war theory (the only acceptable reason for going to war is to prevent another war) is apropos of the time. The Round Table has definite tones of internationalism (from the failed League of Nations to the soon-to-be-born United Nations), and the concept of Might FOR Right (rather than might makes right) is embodied in the idealism of the Round Table fellowship. The rule of law over the rule of men is exemplified in Arthur's struggle against Lancelot and Guinevere. Merlyn also, because of the benefit of his hindsight being actually foresight (he lives backwards through time), continues to make allusions to things such as tanks, modern technology, and even to Adolf Hitler (albeit obliquely).
The tale gets progressively darker as the story continues - the seduction of Arthur by his half-sister will have major consequences later; Lancelot's seduction of Guinevere and her infidelity sow the seeds of the downfall of the Round Table Fellowship, and the final of the four sections is relentlessly bleak.
Still, this is a classic retelling of a classic tale, which continues to be revitalised in media, books, and popular imagination. Whereas some of White's contemporaries chose to create new worlds (think of Tolkien and 'The Lord of the Rings' here), White chose to revisit an old tale that has roots in the legends of the land directly and recast them for modern audiences. As the tales of Arthur continue to have life into the future (he really will be, in a sense, a future king), White's book will stand as a strong link in the chain of storytelling that has maintained this tale for over a thousand years.
on 19 July 2001
The telling of this story was an epic undertaking for T.H.White, who adapted it from Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is rather protracted and the fact that most will be familiar with the plot tends to put off many who would read it. However, the four remaining books are a revelation; White's glorious and rich narrative paints a vivid picture of twelth century adventure, chivalry, treachery, despair and ultimately, tragedy. This is an absolute must read, for it is of a style that one rarely encounters today, written by a literary genius and exceptionally intelligent man. White is over-looked to a great extent in modern literature. Read this book and wonder why.
on 24 May 2001
After reading Lord of the Rings I didn't think that ther would be another book to come close. With hindsight I think that TOAFK is probably better. This book is so packed with morals and brilliant adventures that once it sits on your shelf after you have read it, you'll have to leave all your bookmarks inside it just so you can delve into it whenever you need inspiration.
on 18 October 2014
T.H. WHite is a brilliant writer and this series is a must read for anyone. There are those who are dismissive of 'fiction', feeling like they're not getting anything from it and they are better of reading history, science, politics. My view has always been that social science, politics, emotional scope etc are best conveyed by a good writer of fiction. Wikipedia says it well; "The central theme is an exploration of human nature regarding power and justice, as the boy Arthur becomes king and attempts to quell the prevalent "might makes right" attitude with his idea of chivalry. But in the end, even chivalry comes undone since its justice is maintained by force." Watching the first of the 'new' Batman films reminded me so much of these books (and real life in terms of the social implications). How a true hero/ leader who stands for 'good' must sacrifice and may not be understood whilst he does right, how there will always be people looking to bring them down, the responsibility on their shoulders and the sacrifice of their personal lives to be held up as a beacon of their beliefs, and how a 'hero' ultimately stands alone, regardless of those who love them. The eternal paradox of how to bring about what is right and good without employing the same tactics as 'the baddies'...
on 7 June 2011
Bored with the novels we had to study for A levels, I wandered into our school library one lunch time and picked a book at random to read. It was The Once and Future King, and I'd never heard of it. I was entranced from the first page, I think because it had its own distinctive spirit; not quite like any literary style or trend. Whatever, forty-two years later, it remains my favourite book of all time. White pulls off a very difficult feat for an author: to tell a classic tale in a personal way. For there's no doubt much of the views and passion expressed through the characters belong to White. Yet it works, I think because much of his essential soul matched the subject matter. This was no case of an author finding something he believed could sell, or which would make him a literary name (although I suppose White might have wanted those things too); this was an author strongly driven to tell his tale. I don't think it's any accident that so many films have been based on this book; what White adds to Malory's structure are characters we care about.
The book is not actually that long for the huge scope of life it covers. If this was a modern fantasy, it would probably be stretched out at least three times the length. Also, the four books are very different, matching the period in Arthur's life they cover. So, we have the child-like wonder underpinning The Sword in the Stone, through to the utter, adult tragedy of The Candle in the Wind. It's not without faults but somehow these add to its charm; they're part of White's passion, sometimes unchecked, and that's no bad thing when the story-telling is so brilliant.
You may have met the Sword in the Stone either as the Disney animation (which I confess I have never managed to sit through) or as a standalone book for children - which is how I first encountered it.
The Sword in the Stone, it turns out, is just the first part of T H White's retelling of parts of the Arthur cycle. But it is very, very unlike the parts that follow, and it's probably worth considering them separately, even though they appear under one cover.
The Sword in the Stone, then, is a rumbustiously delightful re-envisioning of Arthur's youth as a second class child in the home of Sir Ector and his son Kay. There are two things which make this book delightful. The first is the character writing, which is witty and insightful. This is something that runs through the entire sequence of books. The second is the rampant imaginative disregard for any kind of historicity. This book is a firework display of deliberate anachronisms. The famous set pieces, including the magician's duel, crop up frequently in comprehension pieces in schools. TH White has no compunction in putting Robin Hood in with the mix, even though five centuries or so separated the purported dates of Arthur and Robin.
Before you imagine this to be a flaw, think again. The nature of the Arthurian cycle, whether in Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the anonymous middle-english ballads, or Mallory's late sometimes tedious, sometimes brilliant retelling, is that they mix things from all over the place. Almost none of the adventures attributed to Arthur could have taken place in the time of the war-leader that the historian Nennius describes - even if they were possible anyway. So T H White has in many ways captured the excitement of storytelling which characterises the Arthur cycle far more accurately than any of the attempts to place Arthur in a historical context.
So, instead of a tedious historicity, T H White lets rip and we have a book which sparkles on every page with detail and adventure.
What then, about the books that follow? First, these are really for an older audience. They are much darker, and become steadily more dark as they progress. White's brilliance of imagination is still there, but it is subdued behind a deeper purpose. It is very hard to knit together the Arthur cycle into anything which seems like coherence. Roger Lancelyn Green achieves it in his 'King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table', but, in doing so he never achieves the psychological immediacy that White offers us. So, T H White offers us a portrait of the Arthurian cycle which is based in the psychology of the characters - and especially in the way in which Arthur's enemies used his trusting, open-hearted nature against him with increasing effectiveness as the story moves on.
From my perspective, the only way to enjoy the entire sequence is to read the first book with an eye to understanding Arthur (Wart). From here, the books flow naturally onwards, opening up a dark, disturbing, but also satisfying and rewarding reworking of the cycle.
A must for Arthurophiles, but people coming from the Disney film may well find the first book enjoyable and the rest of the sequence discouraging.
Warmly recommended, nonetheless.
on 27 October 1998
The life of King Arthur has been described by numerous authors before, but never like Terence White did it. Approaching the subject from an entirely different angle, White grabs you, drags you into the story and never releases you until the story "ends". And what a story it is. What starts out as a refreshing and comic tale of Arthur's life and education when he was young, gradually darkens into a tragedy of lost youth and ideals. Nevertheless, despite the fact that on the last page the King rides out to meet his doom, there is just that tiny note of optimism that makes you follow the author's suggestion to start reading the story all over again. I have done so, reading the story dozens of times, without ever getting bored. Terence White's wit, artistry and genius is so enormous that you discover something new each time you read the book again. Buy it now or regret it later.
on 30 October 2003
When I read this book in my mid-teens, I absolutely LOVED it, because it nurtured and excited my imagination.
"THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING" combines all the elements of Arthurian legend, adventure, and history in describing the lives of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and some of the other notables of Camelot. (This is the novel, some of whose elements were later adapted to the screen as the Disney movie "The Sword in the Stone".)
White has written a delightful, entertaining story not without its harrowing moments. We first see Arthur as a boy (“The Wart”) living with his adoptive family and serving as a page to his older brother. Merlin’s role at the beginning of the novel is as a teacher for Arthur. (Note. Merlin had been entrusted by Arthur’s real father with protecting his son.) He leads Arthur on a variety of adventures, which I won’t go into here, except to say that the reader will be amazed with the rich imagery White creates.
The novel progresses through Arthur’s life, his reign, his sorrows and joys, and the perils and highpoints of life in an England mired in upheaval and turmoil. White shows the reader how the forces of light and darkness interplay in the shaping of a society where magic can be a real factor in everyday life. It’s a long novel, so brace yourself for a healthy sprint.
on 19 September 2013
I first read this back in the late 60s, after seeing the film 'Camelot', based on this book. T. H. White's interpretation is ingenious, with its sometimes surprising references to 20th Century science, which sets it apart from the Tennyson and Malory versions. It's alternately amusing, tragic, light and dark: a glimpse of a boy, tutored by Merlin, who becomes a just king. Betrayal of Arthur by his beloved wife and his friend, exploited and turned against him by evil elements within the Round Table, tests his principles to the extreme. Ultimately the dream of Camelot dies with him, but a powerful message of hope shines through: that one day Arthur will return and a kingdom, where 'right is might' will be restored.
For me, the book is wonderful, but it's a shame this Kindle edition was not more accurately proof-read. Far too many hyphens that can, at times, compromise the poetry of the text.
on 4 November 2005
This edition includes the final (5th) book, The Book of Merlyn, but the version of The Sword in the Stone is not the original version (which is can be bought separately).
When the Book of Merlyn was originally chopped out of the Once and Future King, some of its stories were put into the Sword in the Stone, along with other changes damaging to the book.
This edition of "the complete Once and Future King" therefore has repeated stories, stories missing and other stories which don't fit in at all.
For those who want the real book, i suggest you buy the Sword in the Stone separately.